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It was all so simple. Crystal clear ...
The bugle sent forth its piercing calls. The drum reverberated. And so, too, high above its taut yellow skin, did the sky, whose wide tracts of fresh blue we drank in as we sang our lusty songs. Those drum rolls and those bugle calls shook the entire universe.
At the start of our lives it was all so clear. Our childhood had the tangy smell of gleaming brass, the martial resonance of a hardened drumskin.
And we marched along country roads with a bloom of dust on our legs. Always straight ahead. Always toward the radiant horizon.
Half the land was decked out in a dark lacework of barbed wire fences. Pinned to the ground by watchtowers. But as we marched along we believed it was advancing with us, this land of ours, toward the final goal, toward that horizon, already so close.
There I was, contorting my lungs so that the old bugle would belch forth in a sparkling cascade the bellowing sound that to us was life itself, the joie de vivre of the half-starved children of the postwar era.
There you were, with your head tilted and your soft, dark eyes lost in the distance, raining down a brisk hail from your drumsticks onto the resonant skin.
Now we know all about it.... Those country roads were simply corridors between broad zones fenced in with barbed wire. Watchtowers lurked behind the forests. They marched us round in circles to make us feel we were advancing. Now we know....
Amid all this ardent and incessantmarching, like some blissful delirium, there was a port of anchorage: our courtyard. In the evening we would cross it. Without songs or drum rolls. Having done our duty. Taken one more decisive step toward the radiant horizon. We would collapse onto its trampled grass. For a well-earned rest.
On the long summer evenings the windows in the three buildings that formed the bizarre triangle of our courtyard would all be open. We would hear the soft mingling of sounds that emanated from these beehives. The hiss of cooking oil on a kerosene stove, the reassuring tones of a radio announcer, the somewhat lisping melody of a phonograph record, a baby wailing on the ground floor. This tranquil buzz was punctuated by the dry clicking of the domino players slamming down their pieces onto the wooden table in the center of the courtyard, beneath the poplar trees.
An angular face would appear at one of the third-floor windows. My mother. She would peer into the courtyard for a moment, screwing up her eyes against the orange rays of the sunset. Then she would call: "Yasha!"
A man would get up from a bench beyond the damp clumps of dahlias, mark the place in his book with a twig, and make his way toward the main entrance. Totally bald and unbelievably pale, his cranium looked transparent. There were just a few silvery hairs curled low down on the nape of his neck. Passing close by us he would call out with jocular but firm gentleness: "All right, you pioneers, time to go and wash up!"
This was Yakov Zinger. Yasha. Your father.
A few moments later he would reappear in the main entrance. Walking slightly bent. Like someone going out of his way not to show that his burden is heavy. With small, nimble, taut steps. With an assumed agility.
On his back he would be carrying a man. The man clung to his shoulders with calm confidence, as children do. His pants legs were knotted in broad double bows. This was Pyotr Yevdokimov, my father.
Depending on what was asked of him, Yasha would sometimes put him down at the domino players' table, sometimes on the bench overgrown with the wild exuberance of the dahlias, where your father would normally read. We would emerge from our blissful torpor, pick up our knapsacks, the bugle, and the drum, and climb up into the communal hive filled with its buzz of domesticity. We had to wait for our neighbor to finish her laundry so we could wash, then we would eat in a corner of the kitchen before sinking into sleep. The pale, feathery light of a white northern night settled around us. Its milky flurries dulled the brassy clamor of the bugle and the rattle of the drum in our heads. Often, through the first flakes of this opaline sleepiness, I would hear Yasha's footsteps as he came into our room with his passenger. He would set my father down, and as he left he would weave several whispered words into my dreams: "Okay then, see you tomorrow. Good night!"
The apartment where you lived was on the same landing.
Why, today of all days, have I been remembering all that fanatical marching of ours? By pure chance, it seems.
I suppose you know how Russians get their news here in the West? Someone in San Francisco receives a card from Munich. Surprised at this renewed contact through the mail, he telephones Sydney. "You remember So-and-So? Yes, we used to live practically next door to them. Well, he's in Germany. No, not permanently ..." Three months later a long letter from Sydney arrives in Paris, and in a hasty postscript mentions that such and such a person is in Munich....
It was the same with you. "... Yes, Arkady's gone," a transatlantic voice whispered in the phone. "He called a friend from Moscow and said he was going.... Where to? I think it was either Cleveland or Portland.... I can't remember now...."
That "Cleveland or Portland" rang briefly in my ear again. I had stopped at the hot, noisy Carrefour de l'Odéon in Paris. The coming and going at this crossroads renders one invisible. One can remain quite still. Keep one's gaze focused in the misty distance, on that past of ours, stranger than death. No one will pay any attention. One can even murmur softly, as I do now: "You know, we shall always be those pioneers with our red scarves. For us the sun will always have that faint tang of brass and the sky the resonance of drum rolls. You can't be cured of it. You can't get over that bright horizon only a few days' march away. What's the point of lying to ourselves? We shall never be like the others, like normal people. For example, tike that man I see getting into an expensive car. He glides up to the steering wheel with all the smoothness of a bank card being swallowed by an ATM machine. The well-upholstered interior simply swallows him. First an arm, tossing his suit coat onto the seat, then a leg, then his head and — zip! — neat as you please, he slips into it, as if into the soft embrace of a mistress. Smiling, relaxed. With one hand on the wheel, holding a slim, brown cigar, the other keying in a telephone number from memory ...
"We'll imitate them. We'll ape their coolness. We'll allow well-upholstered seats to swallow us with the same easy smiles. But when all is said and done we'll always remain those young barbarians we once were, blinded by our faith in that near horizon. One vital element will always be missing when we ape them: knowing how to enjoy it. That's what will give us away...."
I plunge into the network of little streets. Suddenly, a burst from a jackhammer reverberates from just around the corner. My body reacts more swiftly than my mind, which is on its way back to civilization. It shudders as I swiftly repress the impulse to hurl myself to the ground, to lie flat, my brow hard against the sand. As on the parched soil of Afghanistan. My fingers grow numb from the weight of a missing automatic rifle. We'll never be normal people....
I stare into the glittering darkness of a store window, straightening my necktie. I must leave you now. My school for apes awaits me. A major publishing house. My assumed persona is a stereotype, Russian émigré writer. My normal person's uniform.
The boys in the courtyard, our playmates, always teased you in the same way.
"Hey, Rezinka," one of them would shout. Rezinka (eraser), from Zinger, was your nickname. "This is howyour dad looks, right?"
He would suck in his cheeks and roll his eyes upward, in imitation of a living corpse. You would hurl yourself at him with clenched fists, but rather halfheartedly. The joke had been repeated too often and now only provoked a few idle guffaws.
After all, it was very difficult to imitate Yasha, your father. From the moment when he had been lifted out of a mountain of frozen bodies at a camp in liberated Poland he had changed little. He used to say it himself, with a smile. "I never get any older. I'm just like I was at sixteen."
His eyes were deeply sunken in gaping sockets. As if somebody had taken this head, resolved to demolish it, and thrust his thumbs into the sockets, embedding the eyes in the brain. His vast cranium, because of its waxen pallor, seemed to be made up of fragile planes that intersected almost geometrically. He had no teeth left and smiled with tightly clenched lips, stretching them in a rather painful grimace. It was really hard to mimic him.
When they had it in for me it was much simpler. One of them would go down on his knees and shuffle forward, puffing and blowing and waving his arms in comic despair.
"Hey, Kim," he would cry, making mincemeat of my surname. "This is your dad going to catch a train, right?"
But when all is said and done these jests were not cruel. They arose from boredom between marches. For the people in our three buildings had long since stopped being surprised to see Yasha and my father crossing the courtyard in the summer dusk. From a distance you would have said it was a single man moving toward the main entrance with nimble steps....
The triangle formed by the three redbrick structures contained a universe that was known to us down to the smallest clod of earth. Parallel with the walls of the buildings, and still following the same triangular formation, enormous poplar trees towered, taller than the roofs. In June their feathery seeds transformed the courtyard into a winter landscape. People spat and sneezed the whole time and housewives cursed as they fished the fluffy lumps out of their borscht.
At the base of the trees, beyond a fence of rotten timbers, there stretched impenetrable thickets made up of jasmine and lilac bushes and flowers with giant stems that were known as "balls of gold." In little enclaves, half hidden by this abundant vegetation, there were several benches, including Yasha's.
At the center of the courtyard stood the domino players' table. Around it there were more trees, which were younger and seemed somehow closer to us, for we had watched them being planted. We were vaguely proud of knowing that we went further back in time than something in this courtyard....
The table, made from thick planks of knotty oak, presented a surface that was the first in springtime to shed its layer of snow, being the most exposed to the sun. It was an intense delight on a dazzling day in March to sit down there, to take a magnifying glass out of your pocket — a real treasure! — and mark your initials on the still-damp timber. The fine bluish wisp of smoke tickled the nostrils and mingled with the snowy chill, before vanishing into the sunlit air....
In summer a regular routine was resumed. On warm evenings the table disappeared behind the backs of men in shirtsleeves or sweatshirts. They grasped the slippery tiles in rough palms made clumsy by the lumps of steel they handled all day or by wrestling with the steering wheels of their heavy trucks. As soon as they began to slam down their pieces with a deafening din the communal symphony of the courtyard found its tempo. On a bench beside each main entrance a row of babushkas chattered away, attentive to the most minor occurrence in the courtyard. The open windows spilled out their buzz, and with it came the sweetish, soapy smell of big washdays. The old swing groaned out its melancholy music. The shouts of invisible children pealed forth from among the bushes.
And like an absolutely essential note amid this gentle evening cacophony, my mother's voice could be heard: "Yasha!"
What did they talk about, those two men, sitting in their enclave amid the rampant clumps of dahlias and jasmine? It was of little interest to us, taken up as we were with the giddy round of our marching and our games. One day as I lingered near them, I heard a scrap of their conversation. It was nothing more, it seemed to me, than a slow recital of the names of towns. Polish, to judge by the sound of them. I already knew that my father had lost his legs in Poland and that Yasha had "moved house" as he himself put it, three times from one camp to another. For them these Polish names, without further comment, were eloquent. A look they both understood, a tilt of the head, sufficed.
On another occasion I found myself behind them quite by chance. We were playing at war. Sent out as a scout, I was creeping along through the depths of the impenetrable undergrowth, cocking my ear, my legs tingling with thrilling shivers, ready at the slightest danger to leap into a bounding retreat. Suddenly I heard their voices. They had that special clarity of words overheard unexpectedly. All that lay between me and the two men were a few dark jasmine branches. Intent on my secret mission, I would doubtless have continued on my way. But Yasha's voice, habitually calm with a slightly ironic tone, this time had an unfamiliar vibrancy to it.
"The only snag they had with those damned trucks," he was saying, "was the business of unloading them. In fact, I think that's why they opted for the gas chambers. Because the idea of the trucks, slaughterhouses on wheels, was in many ways technically brilliant. They loaded people in directly at the doors to their huts. Once the engine started the exhaust fumes went straight through into the back. And when they arrived at the ovens everything was ready for burning. It only took a quarter of an hour. The length of the journey ... To unload them there was an apparatus, you know, like a dump truck.... But it couldn't reach high enough inside the van on account of the corpses jammed against the roof. The mechanism kept breaking down. And besides, they needed men to do the unloading. One day I was detailed to do it. I was next to the van, I could hear the grinding of the mechanism inside the walls. There was an officer alongside it and a man in civilian clothes, probably an engineer. When they opened the doors the officer said to him: `If we could just get another five degrees of height, I'm sure the load would slide out on its own.' Yes, that was the precise word he used, `load.' There was no hatred in his voice. And that was the most terrifying thing about it! Inside the truck, where I climbed in with another prisoner, the jammed bodies had been crushed with the same absence of hatred. Mechanically. So we began unloading, slithering about on little pools of blood...."
Yasha fell silent. Leaning toward my father's cupped hands where a flame glimmered, he lit a cigarette.
As for me, I crawled backward out of my hiding place, pushed aside a loose plank in the fence and stopped, unseeing, in front of the main entrance. Two of my comrades, from the enemy army that day, pounced on me, shouting in deafening unison: "Hands up! You're dead! You're our prisoner!"
I gave up without offering the slightest resistance. With my arms in the air, and their wooden rifle sticking into my back, I advanced with a sleepwalker's tread. For the first time in my life I could not understand their glee....
Then a new marching season began that made me forget the conversation between the two men on their bench overgrown with greenery.
Once again a bright horizon hovered before our eyes in air that shimmered with the heat of summer. Once again, before passing through a village, our troop would carefully get in step, everyone tugging at the corners of his scarf.
You were marching beside me, and I could see your hands nervously poised above the drum, your drumsticks ready to shatter the sleepy tranquillity of the handful of izbas. While I was chewing my lips, raw and chafed from blowing my bugle. When the sound finally exploded we were blind to everything. Everything but the brilliance of the flag above our heads and the far end of the country road trailing off into the sky. The troop's chief singer swallowed his saliva and yelled out in a piercing voice, with all the rest of us joining in:
We are the pioneers, The workers' children we. The age of radiant years Is drawing ever nigh. Always prepared are we, Our motto bids us be....
It was only much later that other images we had registered and preserved unconsciously filtered through from this dazzling infatuation of our childhood. An old man walking along the road, stooping painfully to gather dusty sorrel leaves. The face of an old peasant woman who waved her hand feebly as we passed, smiling at us through her tears in a grimace ridged with wrinkles. Yes, it was only many years later that we sensed what it was those weary eyes could still recall. The countless ranks of soldiers who had once passed through that village before sinking without trace. They too had marched in step, stuck out their chests, concealed their weariness. In those ranks there had been a brow, a pair of eyes, a shape that meant more to that peasant woman than life itself. They too had disappeared. Her old confused wits seemed to be rediscovering these features amid our own young shaven heads. This sweet lie sustained her....
But at the time all our eyes could see was the smile and the wave of the hand.
That evening a big wood fire burned at the center of our camp. It was time now for other songs, slower, more reflective. One of them, even though we sang it every evening and knew the simple story by heart, caused our eyes to gleam with rather moist reflections of the firelight. It was the one about the civil war. It had a deep, dreamy melancholy. We loved it all the more because it was indeed during the night that a young Red cavalryman had met his death, in a battle with the White Guards:
He fell at the feet of his great black horse, Murmuring, as his brown eyes closed: "My steed, my friend, Tell my true love That I died keeping faith with the workers' cause...."
We could picture it all in such vivid detail! The "broad Ukrainian steppe" mentioned in the song. The overheated horse suddenly losing its master in full gallop. The few words whispered by a young horseman, his palm pressed against his bleeding chest, lying on the wet grass and turning his face hopelessly toward his companion's violet eyes.
What would we not have given, we too, at that moment, for the workers' cause! Could we picture a more beautiful death than to be stretched out on the steppe at night, beneath the gaze of a faithful horse, expressive of a more than human compassion? Yes, to die grasping the hilt of one's saber and contemplating the distress of a fiancée far away ...
It was for the beauty of such a death that we loved "the workers," in whose name one must sacrifice oneself, with a love that was almost holy. These workers bore no resemblance to the big men in sweatshirts, their faces ravaged by weariness, who played dominoes in the evening. No, those were too ordinary for our nocturnal reveries. They smoked, gripping their thick yellow cigarette stubs in fingers spotted with grease, swore and guffawed with guttural laughter. Their lives were too banal. Packed into the beehives like the rest of us, they waited in line for the communal bathroom like everyone else, and crammed into the bus that took them to the factory.
The workers in our songs were different. They constituted a kind of superior tribe, untouched by the imperfections of our communal life. A worthy, austere, and just people, for whom we must fight and suffer. It seemed to us that this people was already waiting for us beyond the luminous line of the horizon that daily grew closer.
Our parents said little to us about the past. Perhaps they thought the past provided in songs and the stories in our training manuals was enough for us.... Or did they simply want to spare us, well aware that in our country knowledge is a painful and often dangerous thing?
My father's life, or rather his youth, interested me a great deal. Like some seeker after treasure, I felt certain I could discover images in his past as a soldier comparable to those of the nocturnal battle in which the Red cavalryman met his death. A heroic hand-to-hand combat. A dazzling exploit. But his tales were always drily and disappointingly sober.
I then embarked, almost unconsciously; on constructing a kind of fresco, a mosaic of this youth that fascinated me. Day after day I added fragments from his stories, unguarded confidences, details that emerged by chance in his chats with my mother.
Indirectly and, indeed, without suspecting it, Yasha had helped me greatly in my long gathering of little shards for this mosaic. There was one thing Yasha wanted at all costs to avoid talking about in company: his own sufferings, life in the camps. If ever he had the feeling that this topic might be brought up, he would hasten to ask for a light, or, at dinners on high days and holidays, propose an amusing toast that made everyone laugh. Immediately afterward, to change the subject once and for all, he would say to my father: "Now then, Pyotr, why don't you tell us the rest of that story, you remember, when you were in Byelorussia? Last time you didn't finish it...."
For my mosaic I even used the chance remarks that the domino players would call out to my father when he sat down to play with them. Even in these I found a handful of fragments that evoked his youth, the war. A few trifles that I could add to my summarily reconstructed mural.
One day you had asked me, with that spontaneous abruptness we were all marked with by life: "So, your father, what did he do during the war?"
"How do you mean, what did he do? He was a marksman. He killed Germans," I replied in a rather doubtful voice. "He killed thousands and thousands of them...."
At the time I did not know much about it. Your revelation to me of my own ignorance may have been the starting point for my mosaic.
Now, all these years later, I can unveil it before your eyes (in "Portland ... Cleveland ..."). As before, it is incomplete. But today we can be sure no more fragments will ever be added to its uneven surface....
Incomplete Mosaic of a Youth in the War
In his early days at the front it did not feel to Pyotr as if he was killing people. In his capacity as a sniper he had a very particular relationship with death....
The human figure in his sights that had to be immobilized had become familiar to him while he was still young. Like all his generation, living in "the besieged fortress of socialism," he had learned to shoot very early, in the training circle of the "Voroshilov marksmen."
In the war a great distance always separated him from his living targets, and that, too, seemed to soften the deaths he caused. The human figurines, over half a mile distant, looked very much like the plywood silhouettes he used to pepper with lead in the old days, in his training with the target. Tiny dolls moving about beside papiermâché izbas. Jumping jacks whose very heedlessness was provocative.
He would take up a stance somewhere on high ground, seeking out shadow, thick foliage. Most of the time he went to work with the help of an observer. But occasionally he took up a position on his own.
His secret vigil would then be steeped in perfect silence. His eye glued to the rifle's telescopic sight kept watch on a distant scene. The air between the barrel and the target became more and more dense, tangible. Pyotr felt his own breath dissolving into this space, which yeas concentrated by the sharpness of his gaze.
At the other end of this distance a village, occupied by the Germans, was living out its strange wartime routine. Jolting motorcycles with sidecars swept past the big izba where the staff headquarters was located. A broad, black car swayed along the rutted road. The door to the izba opened, people went in and out, paused on the front steps. They shook hands, saluted, talked. All this — as if in the glaucous transparency of an aquarium — was encrusted in the compact silence of the eyepiece.
Pyotr saw an old woman crossing the road, walking along with a furtive gait beside a hedge. A terrified chicken just managed to escape the wheels of the black car. A pot with a pale flower in it drowsed behind a murky windowpane.
The telescopic sight's attentive circle slid across this noiseless space and began to focus on human figures.... Over there a soldier, a big gangling fellow, is walking toward a well, carrying two empty buckets. The wind-adjustment graduations in the telescopic sight follow him for a moment, then let him go; he would be too easy a prey. He is still in the field of vision, this hulk of a man. Besides, this is a good sign: as long as he's there, one can be sure there have been no troop movements.
The watery circle slides toward the open window of the izba. A young officer sits writing by the window, another is seated beside him and seems to be talking to an invisible conversational partner. Which one of the two? No, it is better to wait a bit. If death comes in through a narrow window it shows too clearly the place where the sniper is hiding. Wait.
The young officer puts his papers into a briefcase, vanishes, reappears on the front steps, runs briskly down them, and walks toward a motorcycle that is waiting for him in the courtyard. The soldier jerks upright on his saddle as he starts the engine. The officer settles into the sidecar, and at the same moment, as if he had sunk into a deep reverie, he lets his chin fall on his chest. With the backfiring of the engine the soldier has noticed nothing.
The empty cartridge case flies out, the new cartridge slides into place. Boring a hole in the tranquil summer's day, the silent circle approaches the izba once more.
The two conversationalists appear on the steps. One of them takes out a cigar case, the other rummages in his pocket. Yes, that must be it, the lighter has been left indoors. He goes to look for it.... The vital thing now is to stay awake!
The officer who has just opened the cigar case suddenly flings it away, as if in disgust, grasps the handrail, and crumples to the ground. As his companion comes out, fiddling with the lighter, he just has time to see the cigarettes scattered, before collapsing in the doorway with his head thrown back.
Now every second counted. To put a cover over the telescopic sight, gather up the three cartridge cases, and, alternating between short bursts of running and frozen pauses, to reach the nearest thicket.
Around the staff headquarters the people were already in turmoil. They pointed in the direction of the copse Pyotr had just left. Yes, they had guessed: a sniper. Raising a cloud of dust, the motorcycle combination returned toward the front steps with its dead passenger. The silence was broken by the furious barking of dogs.
Pyotr knew that he would get away. He knew that the soldiers flung toward the copse in pursuit of him would flounder about for a good ten minutes in a marshy meadow. He had noticed it the previous day when he was crawling along choosing his position. He knew that when they were finally close to the copse they would start raking the thick foliage of a great oak tree with bursts of fire. But Pyotr had never gone anywhere near this tree. For he knew the time-honored rule that regularly saved his life: when choosing a place to shoot from, seek out the best location, a well-protected spot on high ground — and then move a good distance away from it and select another, much less suitable. Then you may have a chance of surviving.
He returned to his regiment that evening, spoke to the commandant, and took his rest. Before going to bed he cut three fine notches on the butt of his rifle.
Right from the start he had viewed the war through the hazy transparency of the telescopic sight. By dint of this his right eyebrow had become arched, as if expressing permanent amazement.... As for the notches on the butt — there were already almost a hundred.
It was in Byelorussia that the deaths of the people who were swallowed up in the watery glass of his telescopic sight one day became real to Pyotr.
His position, this time, was a dream: a steep riverbank, a tangle of willow groves, and, just beyond that, the forest. A little town occupied by the Germans offered itself to view as if spread out on the palm of a hand. Low houses, wide streets. It lay in a single field of fire from one end to the other.
"We've got a real rest cure here," Pyotr said to himself.
He took up position, created a shelter in the fork of a tree, beat down a pathway for his withdrawal, studied the air currents, allowed for the pitfall presented by the river. Rivers or ravines always deceive marksmen, they cause distances to vanish and seem to bring targets closer. Finally, taking his time, he began to explore this silent town peopled with gray military figures.
The first day he made two notches on the rifle butt; the second, three. "It's like a fairground shooting gallery," he said to himself. He even killed a soldier whom, at first, he did not want to touch. The man was in the middle of a courtyard, stretched out full length, and playing the harmonica. He looked as if he were deliberately offering himself to the bullet.
The next day the Germans were wary. At the main crossroads in the town, where Pyotr had killed two officers, a plywood screen had been erected. Pyotr could no longer see people crossing the road, and the cars and motorcycles also went past under the shelter of this panel. "Who cares." He laughed nervously: "You can't all hide behind the screen," and he began to study the streets.
Almost at once he spotted an entire council of war beneath a broad mulberry tree in one of the courtyards. At a garden table two officers sat with their backs to him. Another stood facing them, leaning against the trunk of the tree. There were papers spread out on the table top.
"Those must be maps," thought Pyotr.
His eye slid first over the backs of the seated men, then moved on to the figure of the one standing up. Yes. There. Just below the glittering metallic eagle on his chest.
Slowly Pyotr squeezed the trigger. The officer remained motionless. The two others did not move either.
"Hell's bells!" breathed Pyotr, taken aback. "I've darned well missed him!"
He reloaded, aimed again — at the eagle — fired. The officer did not flinch.
Dumbfounded, Pyotr narrowed his eyes and uttered a cry of surprise. A little trickle of dust was spilling out of the officer's chest.
"Oh no!" murmured Pyotr. "They must have ..."
He had no time to formulate his thought, understood everything, hurled himself down from his tree fork to the ground, and rolled toward the track through the willow groves he had made two days before.
Under a hail of machine-gun fire his shelter was already being transformed into a whirlwind of mutilated foliage.
This crackling was accompanied by another noise, closer, louder — someone was firing at him with a submachine gun. Pyotr rolled some more. Clinging to life, his body seemed to ricochet off the uneven ground. When he was able to get up he felt a strange numbness where his right foot should be. As if his boot were swathed in a great cushion.
That evening the medical orderly extracted a submachine-gun bullet from his foot. Pyotr cleaned the mud-spattered telescopic sight, then reached from habit for a penknife to carve some notches and spat with vexation at the recollection of the dummy officer filled with sand.
"I fell for that like some kid wet behind the ears," he repeated to himself, unable to sleep, tormented by rage and burning twinges from his foot. Then in the night he mastered his pain and calmed down.
"Lucky to be alive," he reflected, his gaze lost in the warm, dark rectangle of the half-open window. The wind scattered this blackness with occasional drops of hesitant rain. And Pyotr again recalled the officer at the foot of the tree, with a little haze of dust escaping from his tunic.
Suddenly a dazzlingly simple notion occurred to him. He pictured all the bullets he had dispatched, not into statues of sand but into living people. Before then he had never given it a thought.
Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer is a novel that bridges the political and the personal, culture and memory; it offers, in the words of Rilke, "the bridge barely curved that connects the terrible with the tender." The narrator Alyosha, hearing news of his boyhood friend Arkady, begins a sudden journey into the past, giving us glimpses of Soviet-era Russia during World War II and the Cold War. Andrei Makine composes this world in less than 150 pages; his economy is a powerful device in the evocation of memory. Paying homage to Proust, Makine uses sound, smell, and taste to trigger the memories of his characters: he shows us the power of returning to a once familiar place or receiving an unexpected phone call. Makine reminds us that our days are crowded with such encounters and that any moment of recollection fills the mind's eye with a picture or series of pictures. Such images embody a broad range of associated experience—a story (if there is one), mood, and emotions. The imagery that Makine puts on the page, unearthed from his childhood and voiced through Alyosha, works in this concentrated way.
The layering of these images makes for a richly associative narrative, one that gives the reader the feeling of an experience—its essential truth—while the core of the experience often remains ineffable. Arkady's father, Yasha, is "a living corpse" who stayed alive in Poland beneath "a mountain of frozen bodies" (p. 6). Lifted from the pile when the concentration camp was liberated but leaving his living face behind, Yasha later carries Alyosha's disabled father, Pyotr, thus sharing his remaining body. Together the two men, both horribly diminished by war, make one body, a whole person, so that "[f]rom a distance you would have said it was a single man moving...with nimble steps...." (p. 7). These images aspire to the intensity and richness of poetry.
Makine is often compared to Pasternak, and in the coming of age of Alyosha and Arkady is a common theme: the clash of ideology and the individual. Why are individual rights abrogated for the good of the community? Why must the individual sacrifice mind and body for the collective? These questions haunt Alyosha even as he remembers the security and beauty of the courtyard, the triangle within three red-brick structures that formed his childhood universe. In the courtyard Alyosha sees something of the Marxist ideal—communal living based on empathy and compassion. But this world, he slowly learns, is strangely at odds with his training as a Young Pioneer. The aftermath of war, the core of Alyosha's formative experience, plagues the minds and bodies of the men of the courtyard like an incurable disease. Arkady's father insulated from the cold by "the deaths of others" (p. 84), will not speak of his own suffering or life in the camps. This pain erupts in the next generation when the boys, uncovering an unknown Nazi graveyard, ravage and curse the remains of dead soldiers in an "orgy of destruction" (p. 66). It is the ghostly quiet of Yasha's voice that makes them stop. But the dark irony of Alyosha's father is the most poignant rendering of war's endless assault on the body: Pyotr, having lost his legs under fire from his own forces, finds success as a cobbler, spending the balance of his life seated at a workbench repairing shoes for those who can still walk.
Just as insidious as the aftermath of war is the indoctrination of the Young Pioneers. The boys march incessantly in extravagant shows of nationalistic pride with their eyes set always on the "radiant horizon," a kind of utopia made possible by fighting for and defending the "workers' cause"—not the tired old workers in the courtyard, but "a kind of superior tribe, untouched by the imperfections of our communal life" (p. 14). In singling out the young for service and dressing them in smart uniforms, the authorities separate Alyosha and Arkady from the courtyard, the very community that in some ideal form they are sworn to defend. But in their experience of the "new pioneers' camp," as they witness a hypocritical authority exploiting the body of a comrade, they begin to understand, now in sexual and psychological terms, the parasitic effect of a totalitarian government on the body of its citizenry. For Alyosha, the pride of being a Young Pioneer—of wearing the uniform, once a kind of shield against the humiliations of communal living—turns into a bitter recognition of useless suffering, of hope destroyed in pursuit of a "beautiful dream" they "swallowed with trusting naivete" (p. 96).
Must any political ideology, even one initially based on restructuring privilege and redistributing wealth, advance by the destruction of the individual? This is the question raised by the penultimate episode of the novel. It is Arkady's mother who tells Alyosha the taboo story, the dark memory that she would not reveal to her own son because as a child "he was too sensitive. The smallest things upset him" (p. 110). But Alyosha must listen as Faya tells him of the death of her grandmother and how, quite by accident, Svetlana, a prostitute living in the same building, takes the young Faya into her apartment, hoping to protect the little girl from the Nazi siege and the ravages of winter. Often paid with food for her services, Svetlana draws sustenance from the men who visit, and they, in turn, take what they need from her body. When she grows ill and can no longer offer her body in exchange for a meal, she resorts to desperate measures. What Faya discovers about Svetlana's search for food is unexpected and horrific, demonstrating in this case that survival depends on the destruction of another. While there may be a moral imperative in believing that the needs of a collective outweigh the needs of a few or one, the harsh reality that Makine shows is that individuals will be violated or destroyed to support the collective. Do dictators use the human body as an expendable resource? How do we live with memories, with past experiences, that threaten to undermine any belief in human decency? These are just some of the disturbing questions that Makine forces us to consider.
For Further Reflection
ABOUT ANDREÏ MAKINE
Andrei Makine was born in Siberia in 1958 and grew up in Novgorod. He received his doctorate from Moscow University and has since worked as an editor for Litterature moderne a l'Ètranger, a French magazine of foreign literature, and as a professor of literature at the Novgorod Institute.
Makine was granted asylum by the French government while studying in Paris in 1987. He wrote his first works of fiction in French, only to experience several rejections from Parisian publishing houses. Because of the popularity of Russian fiction in Paris, when Makine resubmitted his novel Dreams of My Russian Summers as "translated from the Russian," it was readily accepted for publication.
In 1995, Makine won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, two of the most prestigious French awards in literature, for Dreams of My Russian Summers, which was also a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of Requiem for a Lost Empire, Once Upon the River Love, and The Crime of Olga Arbyelina. In reviews and essays about his work, critics have placed Makine's name alongside those of Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, and Boris Pasternak.
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
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Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1980)
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Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Dr. Yury Zhivago—poet, philosopher, and physician—suffers the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Separated from his wife and family, and then from his great love, Lara, Yury must rely on his intelligence and artistic integrity to transcend political ideology.
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27)
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Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
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